In late May, Glen McInnis pulled down the huge world map from his classroom wall and removed the world flags that were strung around the classroom. The bulletin board stood bare without the colorful border and background that had decorated it since last August. The student work that had once adorned the walls lay in a heap in an overflowing trash can.
With a parting glance, he closed the door to his Sam M. Brinkley Middle School classroom before walking down the hall past the school’s now-empty walls and out into the sunshine. The final boxes filled with classroom supplies and resources already sat loaded into his car. He turned to take a final look at the building he had occupied since 2011 and drove away.
“It was pretty sad. You know you look at certain places and you would like for them to be there until the end,” the educator told the Mississippi Free Press. “I thought that I was going to be like my coworker and retire from Brinkley—do my 25 years and let that be it.”
Instead, the former eighth-grade social studies teacher and Brinkley boys basketball coach will move into a new classroom to begin teaching at Murrah High School in a few weeks.
In early May, the Jackson Public School District Board of Trustees unanimously approved the consolidation of Brinkley Middle School’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes into the existing W. H. Lanier High School. Lanier Junior-Senior High School will open at the start of the upcoming 2023-2024 school year. The merger marks the combination of two of the city’s most historic schools.
A Legacy of Civil Disobedience
Brinkley and Lanier were once two of only three Black high schools in the Jackson city limits. JPS, then known as the Jackson Municipal Separate School District, was separated into all-Black and predominately white schools. Brinkley, Jim Hill and Lanier High were reserved for Black students while Murrah, Central, Provine and Wingfield were reserved for their majority-white counterparts.
Educators founded the institution now known as Lanier Junior-Senior High School in 1925. It is named for W.H. Lanier, a former slave who served as president of Alcorn College and the first supervisor of Jackson Colored Public Schools. Brinkley was established in 1956 and named for Jackson native Samuel Manuel Brinkley, who is most known for his role as the teaching principal of the first organized middle-school program for Black pupils in the Jackson Public School District.
M.J. O’Brien writes in “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired” that students from both schools were active during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In the days after the famous Woolworth sit-in, students from Brinkley visited the municipal library on State Street, the same site as the 1961 Tougaloo Nine sit-in. They sat for three hours undisturbed.
In support of desegregation efforts, students at Lanier High School and then-active Brinkley High School marched out of school during lunch on May 29, 1963, and sang freedom songs. The next day around 500 students from five nearby high schools marched with banners and signs toward Farish Baptist Church, where the NAACP held mass meetings.
Police stopped the Brinkley group and arrested all 75 students after they marched only two of the intended six miles. Authorities took them to the fairgrounds in garbage trucks, where they were housed in what the Jackson Daily News dubbed “the fairgrounds motel” and what Jackson activists called the “fairgrounds concentration camp.”
When the remaining groups reached the church and turned towards Capitol Street, police arrested all of the approximately 400 students present.
Integration came to Jackson around 1970. The district’s integration plan meant students could only attend certain schools within the geographic vicinity of their houses. Brinkley became a 10th-grade attendance center and two-thirds Black when students from neighborhood schools were zoned to the campus. Lanier was designated as a center for the enrollment of 10th, 11th and 12th-grade students. Lanier added ninth grade in 1991 before later transitioning into a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school.
Declining Enrollment Brings Significant Change
Over the last decade and more, enrollment numbers across Jackson Public Schools have dwindled. Mississippi Department of Education data shows that JPS enrollment has declined from 29,730 students in the 2012-2013 school year to 18,710 students in the most recent school year. The decline has hit the Lanier feeder pattern particularly hard.
Lanier High School Principal Valerie Bradley says that factors contributing to the shrinking population include neighborhood blight and gentrification. In recent years, both the Maple Street apartments and a large portion of the apartments on Sunset Boulevard have been closed. Another apartment complex in the area, Lincoln Gardens, underwent a major renovation. Many homes in the surrounding neighborhoods lie vacant. With many families leaving the area, school numbers fell.
“I’m in the community and I’m a JPS employee,” Bradley told the Mississippi Free Press. “Across the years I’ve seen the blight in the neighborhood because I’m in the neighborhood. I think some of the blight kind of started when the district had to close down Rowan, Brown and then Bradley.”
“Those schools are all in this feeder pattern, and you allocate slots for teachers based on children,” she explained. “So where there are no children, you have to make financial decisions and things that make sense.”
Conversations began nearly five years ago to address the declining population and determine solutions for the remaining schools. However, none of the solutions were enough to make a significant impact.
“Over the course of the years, we’ve looked at many many options, which included adding additional programming to Lanier that (would) allow more students to transfer into the school, creating more opportunities and activities for parents to engage, and reaching out to alumni (and) encouraging them to get more students to come back into the district,” Laketia Marshall-Thomas, JPS Assistant Superintendent for High Schools, told the Mississippi Free Press.
“There were a number of things that we discussed and planned, but, of course, those things did not yield the numbers that we needed to sustain a full comprehensive high school and middle school,” Marshall-Thomas said. “When we think about comprehensive programs, that means our students have the opportunity to take all the other courses that students in other schools partake in. Whether it’s advanced courses, the arts (or) extracurricular activities, those things are funded based on numbers.”
Lanier Junior-Senior High School is projected to house 875 students in grades 7-12. The building is already undergoing renovations to accommodate its new students. A new middle-school office suite has been created; the halls that will house the seventh and eighth-grade classes have been renovated; and the gymnasium is incorporating upgrades.
Brinkley’s sixth-grade students will become part of Powell Middle School’s sixth-grade academy. Powell students will relocate to the Brinkley building while that school receives its own renovations. The district has not finalized plans for Brinkley beyond that which has some community members worried.
“I hate it not only for the kids, but for the teachers and the community,” Glen McInnis said. “When you take that school out of that community, what happens to that building? That is some of the concerns of the people in that neighborhood. They don’t want it to become one of those things where it is just another old, empty building that people are vandalizing and tearing up.”
School officials are aware of these concerns and the community’s worry about the preservation of the storied history linked to Brinkley. Past graduates have weighed in with options at board meetings suggesting that the current Powell school be renamed Brinkley, as the building that currently houses Powell once served as the original Brinkley Junior-Senior High School.
“We are working on long-term plans for Brinkley. And so as we finalize those we will share those, you know, with the community,” Marshall-Thomas said. “Part of the planning (involves answering questions like) how do we keep the historical pride? How do we keep the remembrance of Brinkley? How do we keep all of those things at the forefront as we are making plans for the long-term use and sustainability of the current Brinkley building?”
Parents and community members have also expressed concern about placing middle-school and high-school students together. However, JPS officials point out that the 7-12 model is not a new concept.
“There are districts across the state of Mississippi that are seven through 12 schools and so it’s not like we’re going into unfamiliar territory,” Marshall-Thomas said. “There are other districts that have been doing this, and this is the only structure that they’ve ever had.”
“So we have experts in the field that we can reach out to if we have questions and if we run into any hiccups on how they’ve seen it work,” she added. “So, having those internal partners to help us walk through it, I think, is a plus, and it should help relieve some of the uneasiness.”
The merger of these two historic schools will mark the first time that the Jackson Public School District has had a junior-senior high school in more than two decades. Bradley is excited to be at the forefront of the change.
“When we make this work, notice that I say when we make this work, this will be the model should the district decide to do this in another feeder pattern,” she said. “Again I’m vested because I’m not just an employee; I’m a community member. I’m invested in making this work. I’ve given my full pledge into seeing it through, and I’m gonna make sure that that happens.”